Friday, October 18, 2019

What the Unknown Pleasures album cover actually shows

Somehow - inexplicably - it has been 40 years since the release of Joy Division's first album Unknown Pleasures. I was a callow university student at the time, and I was dutifully blown away by it, different as it was from anything that had gone before, reaching a level of intensity few albums before or since have matched.
And then there was that album cover - stark, white on black, mysterious, textless, supremely evocative of the skittering, disquieting music inside. It has since come to be considered one of the most iconic album covers ever, in the august company of the Pink Floyd prism, the Velvet Underground banana, the Rolling Stones hot lips. It has wormed its way into the DNA of popular culture, and even today it can be found on t-shirts, tattoos, even oven glovers (apparently), spoofed and mashed up with any number of other icons including Star Wars and Mickey Mouse, and featured surreptitiously on The Simpsons and Ready Player One.
Some people think it represents music, some a medical image like a pulse, some an alien mountain range. One theory pegs it as a representation of a mathematical Fourier analysis. I listened to an interview, re-broadcast on CBC, with the album cover's creator, a (then) unknown young English graphic designer called Peter Saville, who explained that it was actually based on an astronomical image found in an encyclopedia by one the band members. The image is actually a representation of radio waves from a pulsar designated CP1919, a mysterious, powerful and distant astronomical phenomenon discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967, originally nicknamed LGM-1 (for "Little Green Men"). Saville describes as "a dead star whose signal seems to transit forever", an eerie foretoken of the death of band leader Ian Curtis less than a year later.

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